Images of paintings reveal scenes from the 16th century onward, a period long considered the dark ages of Angkorian history
To the naked eye they resemble a parade of surreal shapes: a horse-drawn carriage up in flames; a series of goats, men and cows; a grand European-style ship. “This could be a blade . . . but it’s just my own idea,” said archaeologist Khieu Chan, pointing to a vague black smudge that was once a painting.
Shortly after five in the afternoon, Cambodia’s most famous temple was unusually quiet. A willowy woman posed in a gauzy dress, the lotus-bud shaped towers of Angkor Wat behind her. A blonde traveller rested her head in her hands. Two monks explored a centuries-old library. Out of sight, the sun’s last rays shone on the faint outlines of a set of ancient images.
Ignored for decades, these are some of about 200 illustrations found on the walls of the temple that have come under new scrutiny since Australian rock art researcher Noel Hidalgo Tan stumbled on them during his lunch break one afternoon in 2010.
Using technology called de-correlation stretch analysis, first employed in a NASA mars rover mission, Tan enhanced images of the paintings to reveal scenes from the16th century onward, a period long considered the dark ages of Angkorian history.
“My first thought when I enhanced the paintings was ‘Whoa! Cool!’” he wrote in an email from Canberra, where he works at the National Australian University. “I certainly expected something to come out but I was not quite prepared for how elaborate some of them were.”
The findings, published in Antiquity last month, fit into a shift in the way researchers view the decline of the temple complex from the 13th century, when Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan visited a grand city of several hundred thousand people and the 19th century, when French explorers arrived to find a few houses and villagers.
Until recently, the accepted theory was that the temples were abandoned suddenly after the Siamese (Thai) army sacked them in 1431 and the capital was moved to Phnom Penh. Researchers now believe the decline was more gradual and that the complex continued to be inhabited.
“The lost city is a romantic fantasy in Western sensibilities, but to Cambodians Angkor Wat was and still is a very much living site, and these paintings reflect that liveliness,” Tan wrote. “People and pilgrims continued to visit. There was an attempt to renovate the temple in order to reclaim its former glory.” As well as images of ancient orchestras, boats and animals, the paintings include religious iconography: a pointed tower resembles a stupa and a seated figure could be a depiction of the Buddha. Tan believes they were commissioned in the 16th century by King Ang Chan as part of the transformation of Angkor Wat, originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, into a Buddhist pilgrimage site.
While some of the images could be graffiti, others are more elaborate, indicating that there was probably a hierarchical system in place that mustered the labour needed.
“Given that these paintings also depict entire scenes as opposed to paintings of single objects, they suggest a level of organisation and planning to create them,” wrote Tan.
There is more research to be done, but the results so far are encouraging for scholars of the post-Angkorian period, including Dr Damian Evans from the University of Sydney. For the past few years he has studied the temples as a place where people lived as well as worshipped. He was in charge of the team Tan was working with in 2010.
“The excavation Noel was working on at the time actually found occupation from that post-Angkorian period – they’d found material evidence for adaptation and residential activity inside the enclosure, and then he actually found some artistic expressions from the period.”
Speaking in his office on the banks of the Siem Reap River, Evans explained how faint evidence still remains from the so-called ‘dark ages’ in the lumps and bumps of the landscape. “Instead of building temples out of stone, they would build temples out of wood; instead of carving into stone they would do it in palm leaf manuscript,” he said.
“This has contributed to this sense that Angkor was abandoned and left to the jungle, whereas actually there was a large population that continued to live here even after the royal court re-located to Phnom Penh, and that’s the kind of evidence which Noel is uncovering in these paintings.”
Archaeologists are coming to the conclusion that the reason the royal court re-located was largely due to climate changes that wrecked the complex water management system. A paper published in May by Brendan Buckley and Roland Fletcher reinforced the argument that alternating periods of droughts and floods had a great effect.
“Because this mastery over the environment and the effect of this water management was always so fundamental to Khmer kingship, they basically had to rethink the basis of kingship and how their power was determined in the royal court,” said Evans.
The court moved to Phnom Penh in 1422. The capital moved a few times subsequently but never far.
Local life in the temple complex, however, continued for centuries to come, as depicted in the hundreds of paintings. Knowledge of the illustrations has been passed through the generations to the villagers who still live close to the ancient settlement today. “The local people, they know,” said Chan.
While tour guides do not yet include the paintings on their day to day rounds, Tan is not sure they should, at least not yet. “I’m fearful of encouraging people to touch the walls,” he wrote.
There didn’t seem to be a danger of that on a recent evening, as a guide standing close to some of the clearest paintings pushed an Italian tourist toward a gap in the stone in the opposite direction. Through it, the famous towers of the temple were visible. “Look through this hole, you can see Angkor,” he said. “You want to take a picture?”